Die-hard American Idol fans got an early look at the show's 13th season at movie theaters across the country Tuesday night. If the response of the audience coming out of the Nashville screening was any indication, the show's new producers may have fixed many of the problems that caused a precipitous drop in viewers last season.
American Idol XIII premieres Wednesday (8 p.m. ET/PT, FOX) with auditions from Boston and Austin, Texas. If the season's first episode is a sign of things to come, the new season has improved in several ways. Here's a list:
It's funny. And genuinely funny, too. Not that fake bad-contestant crap. Laughing at that stuff always feels staged at best, a little shameful and soul-deadening at worst. Surely there will still be some of those, but with a judges' trio that's witty and more than a little goofy, the show can get healthier laughs, and more of them.
Judges' chemistry. There's a scene early in Wednesday's premiere where Jennifer Lopez, Keith Urban and Harry Connick Jr. are sprawled out on a couch together, practically sitting on top of each other. By this point last season, viewers already would have expected Nikki MInaj to slit Mariah Carey's throat before she would have sat in her lap. The contestants felt that tension throughout the season. These three should make everyone's lives easier.
Lifting the veil of social-media secrecy. Idol stumbled badly in the social-media realm, trying to scrub all public traces of singers who already had thriving online audiences. That sort of nonsense gave younger viewers one more reason to tune out the show. Meanwhile, upstarts The Voice and The X Factor embraced that world and gave themselves a marketing edge. The Twitter feeds for those two shows have about 2.5 million followers each, while Idol has slightly more than a million. Idol producers seem to finally have loosened their grip on what contestants can say before the shows. It's about time.
Bye-bye backstories. Nobody's pregnant wife is dying of cancer. Nobody has to win to save the family farm. Nobody's homeless. Or maybe they are, and Idol just decided not to tell us yet. The pre-audition segments have all but vanished from this season's first episode, and the ones that remain essentially amount to one guy having ADHD and another guy being raised by his grandparents. That's not to say there aren't some great stories being told - Austin Percario's relationship with his stage mother just begs for development throughout the season - but they all have a direct bearing on the audition and the way each singer relates to his or her music. In other words, more singing, more character, more personality, less ham-fisted emotional manipulation.
J-Lo > Mariah Carey +/- Nikki Minaj. This has nothing to do with their respective abilities as performers. As a judge, however, Lopez is articulate, sweet and attentive - all things Carey, who often appeared to live in her own little universe at the end of the table, was not. Even if you liked the way Carey and Minaj sniped at each other, Lopez plays straight woman to cut-ups Connick and Urban better than Carey and Minaj bickered.
You don't miss Randy Jackson at all. I have tremendous respect for Jackson as a person and a developer of talent, but he ran out of things to say about three seasons ago. Hopefully, he'll find new focus in his role as a mentor this season. Frankly, he would have just gotten in the way of this crew of judges.
Harry Connick Jr. It's hard to overstate the impact Connick could have on the quality of Idol. He's good-looking. He's really, really funny. He's maybe the most musical knowledgeable judge the show has had. And he has little patience for singers who are all flash and no substance. In the premiere episode, he rails against the "smoke and mirrors of pentatonics," the five-note scales favored by run-crazy, training-wheels divas. He's going to hold singers to a higher standard throughout the season, and he could reshape the voting habits of viewers while doing it.
Munfarid Zaidi. There's no way Zaidi - who's from Pakistan by way of Sugarland, Texas - makes it as far as the semi-finals. But he's that rarest of auditioners, the complete geek who's actually good enough to get to Hollywood. A bespectacled kid in turquoise shorts, he makes such a big deal out of singing in front of Connick (while everyone else has had eyes only for Lopez) that somehow Connick winds up promising that if Zaidi blows away the panel with his first song, he'll actually pick Zaidi up and cradle the kid in his arms while he sings a second song. It's maybe the funniest Idol audition in the show's 13 seasons, but here's the thing: Zaidi doesn't come across as a human prop, he's more like a newly introduced fourth member of a comedy improv group. If these judges can keep that level of camaraderie with the contestants once the live episodes start, it could totally upend the dynamic of this show.